by John Kinsella
Have just finished reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I want to talk about Mrs Danvers because I feel few people really ‘get her’. Let me state immediately that I am not interested in whether or not Rebecca is ‘popular’ fiction or not. It is fiction. It is skilfully written. It has something to say. Popular is neither here nor there, and nor is it a sin! Tristram Shandy (which I have been rereading very, very carefully), was also popular in its time and still has some grip on a readership (in fact, try reading Pynchon and most other innovative novelists from the twentieth century writing in English without subtexting the metatextual play and deflationary tactics — appropriate word given Uncle Toby’s fixation/s — of Sterne’s masterpiece).
Also, I think it neither here nor there if this book is considered (or marketed as!) ‘women’s romantic literature’. I find it an amazingly gender-analytical book; du Maurier has as profound an understanding of aspects of ‘male character’ as anyone else (male or female). Maybe this is unsurprising, given the gender problematics of her grandfather’s writing as embodied in Trilby, and her notorious and seemingly doting relationship with her eminent actor/stage-manager father (and the roles he played?). The males star in her family pantheon. And she shows specifically an understanding of the male gaze (the performative female in bohemian artistic circles as well as in societal circles of the time). Which takes me indirectly where I want to go.
A ‘famous bi-sexual’ (ha! what is this? surely we are all-sexual, or to some extent self-selecting in sexuality, if we bother considering ourselves), du Maurier had a long-term and much protected (by her) marriage to a military man and courtier. She also had many relationships with women. She was compelled not only by desire in life, but by exploring the nature of desire in her texts. She was also a writer who dissected addiction in many forms: in alcoholism (her brilliant portrait of ‘Wild Johnny’ in Hungry Hill, for example), sex, and probably most vitally (and why she gets stuck with reductive labels), the obsessive need not only to find love but to have it constantly reaffirmed and validated (the unnamed narrator of Rebecca obsesses over this — the lack of it far more unfulfilling and even tragic than the lack of physical touch). And it is in this context — addiction and desire — that we make contact with the notorious Mrs Danvers.
Mrs Danvers has been made an icon of suppressed lesbian sexuality perhaps because expressions of lesbian identity in Hollywood during the period of the Code were obfuscated and suppressed (see The Celluloid Closet). Hitchcock’s (quite astonishing) interpretation of Rebecca into film has given rise to Mrs Danvers iconicity in this sense. Mrs Danvers’s self-punishment when Manderley burns, her going in the flames of lust and passion and fire of Rebecca’s haunting of the world of the living, the living who could not reach her Wuthering Heights-like standards of freedom and free will (though we hear much of Rebecca ‘riffing’ off Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and the fragmenting of the ‘madwoman in the attic’ motif/reductionism, it is to Emily Brontë’s overwrought relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff that we should liken it.)
Of course, Maxim de Winter is an inversion of Heathcliff; but neither is he exactly Edgar. (Curiously, as Tracy points out, Laurence Olivier played both cinematic Heathcliff and de Winter roles in succession: in Wyler’s 1939 Wuthering Heights and then in Hitchcock’s 1940 Rebecca). Nor Mr Rochester for that matter. He is a pastiche of maleness du Maurier encountered in the ‘civilised’ world of her marriage, offset with the bohemian ‘loucheness’ of her upbringing. A privileged upbringing in which men have powers and can be shown to be fools as well. Mrs Danvers celebrates Rebecca’s playing with men and despising them for their weaknesses. But this does not mean Mrs Danvers is driven by a (barely?) suppressed sexual desire for Rebecca. Her desire is altogether less obvious.
We read that Mrs Danvers practically raised Rebecca. What did this straight-laced woman with the skeletal face and withering stares want with a wild-at-heart girl like Rebecca? Rebecca is du Maurier’s Frankenstein’s monster (Others have indirectly connected Mrs Danvers to Frankenstein, whether monster or doctor, being unclear – see Berenstein, 1998, as Tracy draws to my attention, though I have not read it yet). And it’s to Mary (and Percy) Shelley that we might look for further clues (more of this in another entry). The ‘evil’ of Frankenstein’s monster is a reflection of the world around it, of its inhumanity. I have an old saying, ‘Shit in, shit out’. And the people, in fear, threw much shit at the monster, symbol of all desire for progress and the willingness to sacrifice spiritual ethics in its pursuit. Science taking on God. And thus it is with Mrs Danvers’ creation of Rebecca, who is everything Mrs Danvers is not. I sidetrack here to note that readers establish the second Mrs de Winter as the ‘opposite’ to Rebecca, that she is a either a pale shadow of Rebecca or everything Rebecca was not; that the second Mrs de Winter is underformed in the same way Rebecca was almost overwrought.
Rebecca is Mrs Danvers’s revenge on an out-of-control disordered world (as Tracy suggests, something like Miss Havisham’s ‘creation’ of Estella in Great Expectations). It is her class struggle and gender struggle embodied in the subjectivity of the female identity: unfettered desire, the trappings of vanity that are tossed off without care when done with, though household arrangements and decor are meticulous, as part of the (artificial) role-play of ‘perfect wife’ while beneath, hell reigns in the ‘marriage’. But as much as these ‘attributes’ of femininity are ridiculous constructs of the patriarchy, so is Rebecca a surface for Mrs Danvers’ inner turmoil. She wishes to breaks the bonds of her own constraint — genderwise, sexually, and class-wise. This does, of course, have sexual inflections in terms desire in Mrs Danvers (the touching and smelling of the clothes of the dead, and so on), but it’s more onanistic than that. To love the construct of Rebecca is to love her own creation. Rebecca is never a ‘real’ character in the book, and only given to us through stories and conversations and the narration of vested interests: a ‘good’ Rebecca is certainly not desired by the murderer, Mr de Winter, nor by the supposedly bland second Mrs de Winter, lusting for all-that-Manderley-is-dressed-up-as-‘love’ (other than wanting to be a successful as Rebecca, to take her place as mistress of Manderley — but not be her); a case of protesteth too much, methinks — the narrator’s mock humility is surely supposed to make us feel nauseated!
Hitchcock’s Mrs Danvers’s supposed suicide in flames that she has lit offsets Rebecca’s supposed use of murder to suicide: her youthful, energetic world-encompassing have-it-all self can exist in nothing but perfect form. Rebecca’s terminal illness defines her own end, but more than that, defines the end Mrs Danvers wants to her perfect monster, and herself. We also read a lot about ‘twinning’ in Rebecca (see, for example, Sally Beauman’s ‘Afterword’ in the Virago Modern Classics edition of 2015), but this destruction of one’s own twin is truly the crux of the work. In du Maurier’s novel we read, early in the book, after the ‘gothic’ opening dream-sequence (sorry, most dreams are ‘gothic’!), of the narrator wondering as to the whereabouts/life of Mrs Danver ‘now’ — that is, in the existence post-Manderley being burnt to the ground. Her constant prolepsis, her constant positing of what people might think of her and what they might say and what they might do, which sets the reader up for a hypertext which is really betrayal of the ‘real’ — a pile of ‘red herrings’ as they say — is imploded in this ‘real-time’ contemplation. From the beginning we know a ‘Mrs Danvers’ has been vital to the story, and that she is alive. Rebecca is finally ‘defeated’ by the narrator’s becoming aware and maturity and baptism by fire (remembering she is telling her story from the post- period and constructing her ‘innocence’ in the light of experience), but Mrs Danvers clearly is not ‘defeated’ and has not been (and will not be). But Mrs Danvers is Rebecca. The book is cyclical, and the beginning is a reflection on the end, and the end, left open in itself: Mrs Danvers has cleared out her room and is nowhere to be seen, and then we know Manderley, viewed from a hill, a glow in the sky that is not the Northern lights, is not a false dawn, is burning.
This is the incineration of all that was supposedly Rebecca — but it never was, if we follow the narrator’s words regarding Rebecca’s wild double life in London and Mr de Winter insisting on the separation of states: he tolerates if it’s kept in London, but once it comes to Manderley for the help to see, she has broken the covenant, the contract of marriage having been shown as a farce five days after that first marriage. The incineration was the rebirth of a Mrs Danvers who, we might think, must start again and make yet another Rebecca, another monster, possibly with the aid (again) of Rebecca’s incestuous lover-cousin, Favell, who has (unresolvedly) threatened de Winter with revenge; that he would eventually see ‘justice’ served. Favell is part-Rebecca, and the tool used by Mrs Danvers to unmask yet other features of hypocritical masculinity.
Does all of this make Mrs Danvers a suppressed lesbian, frustrated by circumstance and desire for a young woman (and originally a girl), bursting to reveal her ‘true’ sexuality? Are we to believe maybe that she has conducted at least a clandestine (vital to the book), vicarious or even direct sexual-physical intimate relationship with Rebecca, that she was Rebecca’s true love and vice versa? It’s possible of course, but I don’t think so. (Of course, queer readings of even the film have been more subtle, sophisticated and subtextual than this; I am not contesting them, and in fact deeply respect them.)
Mrs Danvers is asexual on an obvious behavioural level in the narrator’s construct, in who the narrator perceives her to be, or, rather, who she wants us to think she is. She also needs Mrs Danvers to be given permission to hate the monster Rebecca. The second Mrs de Winter can only grow by emasculating the feminine, to work the paradox of Mrs Dr Frankenstein. It’s a web of deceit, as the cliché goes, and deconstructs throughout the text. But Mrs Danvers is also the embodiment of all-sexuality: of desire and destruction where love is thwarted and damaged and burnt. She loved Rebecca as she loved herself. Hitchcock seemed not to ‘understand’ this, or was prevented from doing so by the Code, and punished her, no doubt to the delight of many in its early (and later) audiences!